Greetings from Fort Myers

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Hrbek Road.jpgPro tip: when the GPS in your car tells you to take a boring interstate and the map in your hand shows you a nice, winding rural route, follow the map every time. Interstates are death.

The trip across the state to Fort Myers was a lot of fun. No traffic, nice weather, a big lake and lots of ranches where cattle grazed amongst palm trees. I stopped and had lunch at some little roadside joint with a sign that said “best food in Okeechobee County.” I didn’t ask if it was the only food in Okeechobee County. That would have been rude.  Good burger, though.

I made it to Fort Myers mid-afternoon, checked into my hotel and decided to run by Hammond Stadium — spring training home of the Twins — to pick up my media credentials for today’s game. The place was mostly empty — the Twins were up in Sarasota playing the Orioles — but the gate was open so I drove on in to what may be the most beautiful ballpark parking lot I’ve ever seen.  There’s a grassy mall lined with palm trees leading to the main gate, with nicely landscaped parking rows on either side. Each row has a street sign, naming it after a Twins great.  As you can see from the pic, I parked on Hrbek Road.  Strangest thing happened though: when I thought I was safely parked, a big dude came over and wrestled me off my space. Cop standing nearby didn’t do anything about it. Huh.

I walked into the empty ballpark and wandered around a bit.  Port St. Lucie and Tradition Field remind me of an office park. Hammond Stadium screams spring training. It’s really a beautiful place. There’s the landscaping, sure, but the facade has this Churchill Downs thing going which walks that line between cheesy and quaint that characterizes all good minor league ballparks.  Inside some men were attending to the infield while the outfield grass was being watered. I sat down on a seat near the third base dugout for a bit, smelling the grass, enjoying the sun and thanking the fates that I get paid to do this.

After a few minutes of bliss I found an elevator which led to the Twins’ offices. It was mostly empty, but a fellow named Dustin Morse was still working. My credential had already been sent down to will call, it seems, and will call was closed for the day, but Dustin was nice enough to fill out a new one for me so I could get to the ballpark early this morning before the ticket booth opened up. After that he gave me the lay of the land at Hammond and patiently answered my questions despite the fact that he probably had 100 more important things to be doing. Great guy, Dustin. And friendly with the sabermetric media too!

I left Hammond, and decided to take a drive down to the beaches, which were emptying out for the day. I met three baseball fans walking along the beach. The first two were a young couple wearing Cardinals’ t-shirts. I chatted with them a bit. They’re from central Illinois and are down here to follow the Cards around (they had been to the Red Sox-Cards game here in Fort Myers that afternoon).  Seems they come to spring training every year. It’s the wife’s obsession more than the husbands, they said. I’m a happily married man and I’m not violent by nature, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have thoughts of bumping the dude off and taking his woman to be my bride.

I met the second one in the parking lot near the beach when I decided to play good samaritan and gave him my little pre-paid parking ticket that still had some time left on it so he wouldn’t have to buy one of his own.  I had on a Giants’ t-shirt and he said “your giving me this may make me have to rethink Giants’ fans.”  I told him I wasn’t a Giants fan. I just liked the shirt.  He said he was relieved to hear that, because he really doesn’t want to have to start liking Giants fans, what with him being a Dodgers guy.  And no, he’s not happy that the Dodgers train in Arizona now.

Back to the ballpark first thing this morning. Twins vs. Cardinals at 1:05 PM.  I’ll be checking in throughout the day. Also if you’re on Twitter, follow me at @craigcalcaterra. I have a tendency to bring the snark during games if that’s your bag.

Pirates sign left-hander Cory Luebke

Cory Luebke Getty
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
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Eric O'Flaherty wasn’t the only reclamation project added by the Pirates today, as the club also announced that they have signed left-hander Cory Luebke to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.

Luebke once looked like a solid rotation piece for the Padres, but he hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since April 27, 2012. He’s undergone a pair of Tommy John surgeries since. Now 30 years old, he logged seven innings in the minors last season before requiring a procedure to remove loose bodies around a nerve in his forearm. The Padres cut ties with him in November after declining a $7.5 million club option for 2016.

It’s hard to count on much from Luebke at this point, but he told Adam Berry of MLB.com that he feels healthy and hopes to compete for a bullpen job in the spring.

White Sox reportedly considering Ian Desmond

Ian Desmond
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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Many have speculated on a potential match between the White Sox and Ian Desmond this winter, but we haven’t heard much in the way of legitimate interest. That could be changing with spring training right around the corner, as MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reports that Chicago is among the teams considering the free agent shortstop.

After turning the page on Alexei Ramirez this offseason, the White Sox currently have Tyler Saladino in line to serve as their starting shortstop in 2016. The 26-year-old is considered a strong defender, but he batted .225/.267/.335 with four homers over 254 plate appearances as a rookie in 2015. Desmond is coming off a nightmare of a walk year and has seen his strikeout rate climb by 8.5 percent since 2012, but he possesses more offensive upside and it’s not hard to imagine a bounceback campaign while calling U.S. Cellular Field home.

Similar to fellow free agents Yovani Gallardo and Dexter Fowler, Desmond is attached to draft pick compensation after turning down a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from the Nationals. It’s a big reason why a potential deal with the Rays is reported to be a “long shot.” Chicago’s No. 10 overall pick in this year’s draft is protected, so they would give up their No. 28 overall pick if they sign a qualifying offer free agent like Desmond.

Pirates sign reliever Eric O’Flaherty

Eric O'Flaherty
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Left-hander Eric O'Flaherty has agreed to a minor-league deal with the Pirates that includes an invitation to spring training.

O’Flaherty was one of the best relievers in the league for the Braves from 2009-2013, posting a combined 1.99 ERA in 249 innings, but Tommy John elbow surgery derailed his career and he struggled for the A’s and Mets in 2015 while dealing with shoulder problems.

It’s tough to know if O’Flaherty is healthy at this point, but the 31-year-old southpaw certainly has a chance to be a nice reclamation project for the Pirates on a no-risk contract.

Mariano Rivera to get his plaque in Monument Park on August 14

Mariano Rivera
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The greatest closer in history is going to get the ultimate honor the New York Yankees bestow on August 14. That’s when Mariano Rivera will get his plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium before a game against the Rays.

There was some chatter in the last year or two about whether the Yankees were somehow lowering their standards out there, what with guys like Tino Martinez getting honored. But if that’s something you care about it won’t matter in this instance. Rivera would’ve been worthy even if the old snobby ways had held and only inner-circle types got a plaque, what with him being a key member of five World Series-winning teams and his status as the all-time saves leader in the regular season and the postseason.

The Yankees retired Rivera’s No. 42 in 2013. He’ll get his plaque in August. Then, on the first ballot for which he is eligible, he’ll be voted into the Hall of Fame, likely with a percentage in the mid-to-high 90s.